WORKING “ENDLESSLY” WITH ALBERT HAMMOND
Albert Hammond is the veteran artist, songwriter and producer who crafted hits on three continents in two languages over five decades for dozens of artists. His latest project has been writing songs with Duffy and producing her new album “Endlessly.” Versatile creative artist Hammond has shared his creative talents and knack for imaginative music with a broad range of talents including Johnny Cash, The Beach Boys, Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison, The Carpenters, Elton John and Sonny & Cher. His songs have been nominated for a Grammy, a Golden Globe and an Oscar. He is perhaps best known for his songs “It Never Rains in Southern California,” “When I Need You” (written with Carole Bayer Sager) and “Nothing’s Going to Stop Us Now” (written with Diane Warren and a big hit for Jefferson Starship)Hammond, 66, was born in London, grew up in his native Gibraltar and now lives in Spain. He is the father of three children including Albert Hammond, Jr. who plays with the New York rock band The Strokes. Hammond has also been working on “Legend” a retrospective of his best known songs recording them afresh with artists including Julio Iglesias, Cliff Richard, Ron Sexsmith and Courtney Taylor (of the Dandy Warhols).
How was it you came to work with Duffy?
ALBERT HAMMOND: My wife was watching TV in New York one night and she called me up when I was in LA and said, “I’ve just seen a white girl that sings like a black girl and her name is Duffy and I just saw her on some late show.” This was like two years ago. That was the first time I heard of Duffy and I immediately YouTubed her and started to look in to Duffy a little deeper and I thought, Gosh I would LOVE to write with this girl. So I sent her a letter telling a bit about who I was and that I wanted to write with her. The word came back from both of them that Duffy would like to meet me when she comes for the Grammys. That’s the way it worked out. I went down to meet her at the hotel and I actually had a bit of a tune and a title which was “Don’t Forsake Me.” I just mentioned to her that I had this title in my head that was called “Don’t Forsake Me” and she didn’t say much. About a half and hour later when I said I have to go and you have to go to the Grammys and da-da-da and she said, “I LOVE the title ‘Don’t Forsake Me.’” When can we write it? That was the beginning. I said, “Whenever you want.” And she said, “When I finish with the Grammys can I come over?” I said, “Yeah.” So that night she didn’t go to any parties but came over to my place and we wrote the song. That was the first song.
How did you get from the stage of writing together to the idea of producing the album together?
HAMMOND: Well, you know it just… happened. We just felt that we could actually go in the studio with what we had done songwriting-wise, which was the demos of guitar and voice, and add rhythm section and then just keep sweetening it. Just throw ideas out. Let’s put a sax here. Let’s try some strings there. All that kind of stuff. It wasn’t as if we had a picture in our minds we were trying to reproduce, but we had to paint it
What were those writing sessions like between the two of you?
HAMMOND: I have a piano and I have a guitar. First writing session she came for 5 days and she was staying in the hotel opposite my place – it is literally 10 steps and then you are at my place. My home is in south Spain near to Gibraltar – about 15 minutes from Gibraltar. We can see the rock from here. The she would come over and say, “I had this dream about this and da-da-daaah.” Or I would say, “I was messing around with these chords and this thing came up.” Really it is the most 50−50 thing that I’ve ever written with anybody. Sometimes you write with a lyricist or a melody writer… If you write with a lyricist you write the melody and obviously he writes words but you write words too so you write a little more. But with Duffy it was really a 50−50 thing where we would both throw ideas at each other and work on them and it was so pleasurable and nice. The weather was good and it was summer. The food was good. We really looked forward to every day. It was really fantastic. Then there were little things like I have a little terrace that overlooks the Mediterranean in this apartment and she would open the doors wide open. She would say, “Let’s let the angels come in because they are with us.” So it was all about the universe and all the planets being in the right place at the right time.
What is unique about Duffy?
HAMMOND: It’s a color. She has a color of voice that is different from anyone else. You think of Al Jolson having an immediate color to his vocals. If you heard Al Jolson you would immediately know that’s him. Nobody else would sing “MAAAAMMYYY HOW–I-LOVE–YA HOW–I-LOVE–YA…” like he did. The color of the voice. I mean, Willie Nelson… If you listen to Willie he just has that unique sound. Same with Roy Orbison or Johnny Cash, Neil Diamond, Julio Iglesias – these people all have a color of their voice. You recognize them immediately. And Duffy has THAT. She is totally recognizable. And she also has this BEAUTIFUL voice that you can’t help but fall in love with. It is just an amazing thing. I think that is what makes her so unique. She is also… I don’t like to use the term “old-fashioned” but something about her sound comes from the past. You hear a little Phil Spector and old Girl Groups, but you also hear Etta James. You hear blues and old 50s and 60s pop. And she is not that old. She is 26 years old. So it isn’t as if she grew up with that. She just has it. She’s an old soul. That’s what she is. She’s an old soul. She has been around for a few thousand years probably and surely has been back many times.
Where did the music magic come from?
HAMMOND: It really is mysterious to me because songwriting is pretty mysterious anyway. You say, “Where the hell did THIS come from?” because you are amazed. I mean I know where it came from, but WHERE did it REALLY come from. But this was just amazing. What a great experience. Then besides that… I mean I never learned the names of chords because I never learned music – I mean I play the guitar and play the piano, but here my hand would just go to a chord that I had never played before. I don’t know why, but it would just go there and she would sing THAT note. It was just amazing. To me it was the two of us and the Universe. It’s a great trio. It’s all about energy isn’t it. And obviously the Universe has all of the energy in the world. I mean look at the earthquakes and all the disasters on this earth that is all done by nature and nature as far as I know comes from the Universe.
How would you put Duffy in the context of the international scene?
HAMMOND: Well she’s as international as they come! Duffy works no matter where you put her. There is a simplicity about her. The way she stands. She just has that something special. It is hard to come by and it is something that I personally treasure.
How did that develop with finding The Roots and all of that?
HAMMOND: When I was speaking with my son, I said I have just written all of these songs with Duffy and we’ve got to go and make a record, but I just wish I could have that Motown band that used to play for everybody. He said, “Well dad you know there is a band that plays the Late Show and they are called The Roots. You should check’em out.” So I checked ‘em out and I called Duffy and I said I just checked out this band and I think we should work with these guys. And she said, “Who are they?” I said they are called The Roots. She said, “O wow, that drummer is my favorite drummer. I tried to get him on my first album, but he wouldn’t do it.” I said, Really!? Well, we’ve got to get him for this one. What we did is that we went to New York and we used The Roots to play on the demos. So that every song we did with The Roots it was done to our demo with guitar and voice. Then from there it just kept building. But the original concept was: We don’t want a click track. We don’t want it to sound like a machine. We wanted the finished songs to feel as good as the demos felt. So we always said, “Play to the demo. If the demo slows down, YOU slow down. If the demo speeds up, YOU speed up.” Then it has the human touch instead of all of this stuff that you hear today that is done with machines and click tracks so everything has got a TOCK–TOCK–TOCK. There is no human feel to it.
It seems that the flavor of this record is so much lighter and happier than her first album?
HAMMOND: I think the reason is that the first record took 4 or 5 years to be made and it was done by a bunch of different people. So when the record was put together, if you hear pain it was probably because it took a lot of pain for it to be put together. THIS was done by TWO people who sat down to write great songs. And two people who fell in love with something and just carried that love on through the songwriting and the singing and the production and the making-of and everything. I think there is the difference. Two writers only instead of 10 writers.
What were the sessions like?
HAMMOND: The sessions were good, exciting, stressful – it all depended on what day and what was going on. Not everything is roses. Some days were hard because we couldn’t get the demo feel and that was better than what we were doing. We’d ask ourselves, “Where are we missing out?” We’d go back to the demo every time because it was so important to keep that magic. You know whenever I write a song either on my own or with someone, it is so important to put it on to some tape or something because the magic is in that first 20 seconds or whatever when you are first putting down something. The next day the rhythm and feel is different. So you go back to the place where you were first inspired and you hear it and you say, “Wow, this really sounds good. Now I know what I am doing wrong.”
At the beginning of “My Boy” why are the crowd sounds the first thing you hear on the album before you hear any vocals?
HAMMOND: That was Duffy. That was her idea and I think it is fantastic. The Sgt. Pepper bit was – Duffy because we wanted to make a record that was like “Tapestry” or like “Thriller” or like “Sgt. Pepper’s” – we wanted an album that had a concept that when people heard it the would go, “I LOVE this record. There is a wonderful thing happening from song to song. It’s about everybody’s lives. It’s real.”
Why do some records have that and some don’t?
HAMMOND: Because it is a concept of a band and this is a concept of two people who got together and I didn’t want to just write songs, I wanted a little more than that. Look, I brought in my experience. I am 40 years older than she is. It is not easy for her or for me because 40 years is a big gap. I am 40 years older than her, but I am still 26 in mind because I am still young in mind. We just had this concept that we wanted to make an album that people would remember forever without thinking about it. We just said it and kept writing.
You have had so many collaborations with important artists, can you maybe compare those experiences a bit with your work with Duffy?
HAMMOND: Well, every time you write with some one it is different. First of all, you hope that you still have it. You hope the chemistry is there between the two of you – because that is very important. If the chemistry isn’t there… well I could sit down with Burt Bacharach and we might not be able to write two notes together because if the chemistry isn’t there it isn’t going to work. It’s like a marriage, isn’t it? If you marry somebody and the chemistry isn’t there, then you are going to get divorced. But if it is there you will lat forever. That means also that you MAKE part of the chemistry happen. It isn’t as if you can just lie back and wait for the chemistry to happen. Ito hard work to make it happen. But you feel it. You know it’s there. And so you carry on. The thing is that the chemistry isn’t there only for the writing, but also you become like family. You write, but you also go to dinner and enjoy yourselves and have fun. I feel so much a part of her family whenever I go to London and her sisters come over, I just feel part of the family. She makes you part of the family and it is such a wonderful feeling.
What do you think distinguishes a great song from just a good song?
HAMMOND: Gosh, that’s a hard one. I would say a great song is one that surpasses all languages. In other words a great song you need to have a melody that is world-wide. You can’t have a melody that only works in Nashville or on the R & B charts. You need a melody that everybody in the world no matter where they are can hum. They might not be able to sing the words because they don’t know all languages, but if they can hum or whistle the melody, that is a great song.
What do you think makes “Endlessly” a distinctive album?
HAMMOND: I am sure as we talk and listen to me or understand Duffy you realize how the record came to be. But for me to pinpoint each and every one of these things is difficult because I look at the whole creative process as something of a mystery. I don’t really want to know WHY I write songs like this. I just want to keep being who I am so I can keep writing songs like this. It is almost like the fantasy is much nicer than the reality. You can actually go to Hawaii in your fantasy, but when you actually go to Hawaii, it might be raining and you might not like it so much. To me what I do is mysterious and I want to keep it there in my own mind. It doesn’t mean I won’t answer my own questions, but in my own mind it is always going to be a mystery why I have written all of these songs. Don’t forget, I come from Gibraltar and it is a little tiny place and to get out of there is a difficult thing. To actually grow up with the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash and Glenn Campbell and Elvis and all these people – and to have actually worked with some of them and come from Gibraltar is almost like a dream come true. It is impossibility.
Was there a stage in the recording where you realized you something extraordinary?
HAMMOND: I think we knew that from the moment we wrote the songs. I don’t think that at any point in the recording process did we ever think any less than when we had put the songs down. And by the way, we would finish the song and a minute later it was being put down so the feeling was there. Some of it even we improvised as we were putting it down. It wasn’t even planned. So we knew what we had from the very beginning. The excitement was there from the very beginning. We knew we had special children here and we wanted to make sure that they were kept in the right environment and not be abused and treated right and all that kind of stuff. Which is what you would do with your own children.